“Branching plotlines.” The phrase is so evocative. Personally, it makes me think of a huge, gorgeous oak tree that you can’t help but climb. The further up the tree you get, the more enveloped in its leaves, its world, you become. Eventually, having scaled the rough bark and felt the twigs scraping past your forearms and face, you find yourself completely surrounded by a whole verdant universe.
That’s sort of what it’s like when a video game has a branching plotline that really works. You keep making choices based on the realities of the game, and with each choice you make you venture that much further into the mythology, the systems, the history and the logic of whatever game you’re playing. I call these often-thrilling moments in games “decision points.”
(Since we didn’t hear from the lawyers / literary agents of George W. Bush after I used the phrase extensively in my last piece, I’m assuming that he’s not only refraining from filing any kind of lawsuit regarding my use of the phrase, but that also his silence is a kind of tacit approval.)
Now, imagine that same tree as before. But some branches of the tree are rotted through, dead, and instead of helping take you deeper into the depths of the great oak, they snap if you put your weight on them and you fall a hundred feet back to the ground, back to the real world, where you have problems like work responsibilities, financial concerns and the fact that you’ve just broken three ribs and shattered your pelvis after falling from a tree.
Just as well-crafted decision points immerse you deeper into a game, less masterfully constructed decision points pull you out. They make you confused, frustrated or disinterested. But why? Well, it can be for a number of reasons.
Spoilers ahead for The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Skyrim and the original Baldur’s Gate.
BALDUR’S GATE – DON’T BLOW ME OFF
I hesitate to put this on here, because the original Baldur’s Gate and its wildly cool sequel are two of the reasons I got into RPGs in the first place. But, alas, I must be honest, and this decision point was one I didn’t even understand until I was ankle deep in hamster blood.
Let me explain. Like everybody else who ever played these games, I loved the insane barbarian Minsc and his pet hamster Boo. Not only was he a funny character with tons of personality, but he was my party’s heavy.
When you first meet Minsc, he tells you that he is sworn to protect a sorceress who has been captured by gnolls. Pretty standard D&D stuff. You agree, sure you’ll kill the gnolls, but first you’ve really got to level up and get cooler swords and clear all these stupid kobolds out of this mine.
So Minsc goes with you, and he helps you out with whatever you’re doing. And after a while he mentions, “Hey, remember that sorceress? Me and my space hamster blah blah blah.”
During my play-through I brushed him off, assuming that like every other quest in pretty much every other RPG ever, I could get around to this when I felt like it. But then, after another short while, Minsc flips out. He decides we’ve been using him, and he attacks the entire party. There’s no reasoning with him – it’s too late for that. He’s furious and that cool sword I gave him is now being used to cut us all up. We’ve got no choice but to kill him (and, presumably, his hamster).
When I looked online for help with the quest, I got the response from franchise loyalists that I was simply paying for choices that I had made. But I call bullshit on this and every decision point like it, where you have a limited span to make a choice and you don’t know it. Unless you establish very early in your game that actions will be on a timer, and certain quests will expire or change significantly depending on that timer, then you have to assume I will blissfully spend years of in-game time trolling the countryside looking for bandits to eviscerate. Nearly the entirety of video game history has trained me to take time for granted, and so I think a little more warning isn’t unreasonable when I ought to be in a hurry.
THE WITCHER 2 – SHE’S A GOD DAMN SUCCUBUS
In The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, main character Geralt of Rivia runs into a lot of monsters. It’s sort of his thing. But when a monster you face tries to talk itself out of a battle, Geralt turns from warrior to detective.
The succubus quest in this game plays out like a Law and Order: SVU episode written by Neil Gaiman on speed. You are tipped off that a succubus has made her lair underneath the town, and sure enough she has. However, when confronted with your suspicion that she has been killing young men she adamantly denies it, saying while she draws lifeforce from her lovers / victims, dead men are no good to her. She accuses a former lover who was overly smitten with her, and became jealous when she seduced other men.
Over the course of this quest you exhume bodies, take statements and write poetry, all in search of what really killed these men. Then you are forced to either accuse the succubus or her former lover. Little do you know that only after you accuse one or the other will the truth become known, and then only if you have chosen correctly. Otherwise, you’ll have to live with your choice, wondering in vain what the hell all that succubus business was about.
SKYRIM – WAR, WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
I surrendered huge spans of my life to Skyrim. If I had spent every hour I played Skyrim learning foreign languages, I would be working at the UN. And I don’t regret a second of it. Skyrim is more open-world than a lot of the games I’m focusing on here, but there are still big choices to be made about who your character sides with in any given conflict, and who your character wants to be in this gigantic realm.
But one large portion of Skyrim felt hollow to me, and it’s the portion I would have assumed would be the most interesting – the civil war between the imperialist forces and the native rebels. There’s certainly a lot at stake here, including civil rights, self-determination, Tamriel’s balance of power and freedom of religion. However, for all the subjects that this conflict covers, your part in whatever outcome occurs speaks to shockingly few of them.
When you choose a side to fight for in the battle for Skyrim, you are assigned basic missions where you gather artifacts and take enemy strongholds. The lore behind the politics involved is deep, but once you’ve thrown in with a certain faction, you see very few of these big ideas carried through to a satisfying climax. You don’t get to ream Ulfric Stormcloak about the terrible treatment of the dunmer under his reign, and you can’t tell General Tullius that restricting the Nord culture is idiotic. Even though the game goes out of its way to show you how the conflict is anything but black and white, once you join the conflict on either side, you become little more than an order-following war machine.
I had a friend tell me recently that he was reluctant to recommend a linear game to me, because he knew how much I loved the participatory nature of open-world or player-influenced plots. I told him, no, I could enjoy games that didn’t give you a bevy of dialogue options or multiple endings. And it’s true — a really great story, even a static one, still shines even to the most committed advocate of heightened player autonomy in all areas. The formative games of my youth were titles like Metal Gear Solid and The Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past, both games that told affecting stories where your only input as a player was helping the protagonists survive.
But the samples above (flawed decision points cherry-picked from very good games) do make clear to me that the sensation of control, of choice, is an absolutely key part of the future of games. Decision points bring you directly into the thematic material of a game, and in so doing they make you directly party to any deeper meaning that the game is able to produce. When exercised awkwardly, these mechanics are unimpressive; when put to good use, they are some of the strongest unique powers the medium has.
About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.
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